A Masterful Retreat

Historical Marker #637 in Carter County notes the route of retreat north from Cumberland Gap made by Union General George W. Morgan's Union force during the fall of 1862.

That September, Confederate troops led by General Carter L. Stevenson neared Cumberland Gap, which was occupied by Morgan's Union soldiers. Stevenson's Confederates were intent on joining an invasion of Kentucky that was already in progress. When the Southerners approached, Morgan's Union troops retreated northward through some of the most difficult terrain in the state. Unable to escape by way of Richmond and Lexington, which were already in Confederate hands, the fleeing Union army instead retreated across mountainous eastern Kentucky to Carter County and then to Greenup County on the Ohio River.

Upon leaving Cumberland Gap, General Morgan determined that no supplies should be left for the advancing Confederates. Powder magazines were blown up and commissary and quartermaster stores were burned. Heavy artillery incapable of being brought along was also destroyed.

Private Thomas F. Leech of the 33rd Kentucky Infantry Regiment described the treacherous retreat. He remarked, "after our supplies were exhausted we evacuated the Gap and marched two hundred and fifty miles through the most desolate and dreary part of Kentucky." After crossing the Ohio River, Leech was pleased to find "kind treatment" from Buckeye State citizens, who "flocked to the roadside from distances of from eight to ten miles with wagon loades [sic] of provisions."

Confederates commanded by General John Hunt Morgan constantly harassed the rear guard of the Union army, making the difficult journey through the mountains even more harrowing. The "New York Times" reported that "The rebel MORGAN first assailed the rear of our force, but changed his tactics, passing to the front, and blockading the roads and destroying subsistence. For a period of three days our troops had no water but that found in stagnant pools, and the quantity thus found was very small."

Despite the difficult terrain and the threat from Confederate cavalry, the Union troops made a successful retreat. Several other historical markers in eastern Kentucky mark General Morgan's route.